Men of Color in U.S. Prisons

Men of Color in U.S. Prisons: Using Marxian and Enlightenment Theory to Analyze the Social, Economic, and Political Problems


Course: SOCY 215: Critical Social Thought
Written: December 2, 2014 
Published: January 10, 2017
© All Rights Reserved

 

I. INTRODUCTION

Topic: Main Thesis

From mass incarceration to the prison industrial complex, the political, economic, and social apparatus of America’s prison population is characterized by racial inequalities. Statistics and research support that men of color are at a greater risk of incarceration. Three pertinent reasons support why this is unsettling. First, the incarceration gap shows that men of color are imprisoned more than any other race in America. Second, men of color are used as a labor source to help fuel the prison industrial complex. And third, men of color are economically, socially, and politically disadvantaged.

Summary of Solution

The key question here is: What is the solution to decreasing the men of color in prison? The proposed solution strives to provide an answer that is logical, rational, and applicable to men of color. Although the methodology may not be applicable to every man of color, it poses many benefits and advantages collectively. In essence, the solution is divided into 10 dimensions of revolutionary action: social, economic, financial, political, spiritual, family, education, legal, and health. All in all, the solution addresses roots of the problems from these 10 dimensions in an effort to decrease the number of men of color in U.S. prison today.

Theoretical Approach and Concepts: Marxian and Enlightenment Thought

The main focus of this paper is on three main problems regarding men of color discussed earlier: the incarceration gap, racial inequalities, and men of color used as a labor source to fuel the Prison Industrial complex. Together, these problems revolve around  men of color being economically, socially, and politically disadvantaged.  I will employ theoretical concepts from both Marxian and Enlightenment theory to analyze these three problems. Marxian and Enlightenment are appropriate for analyzing the subject matter because it is applicable to the social, economic, and political context revolving men of color in U.S. prison. More specifically, Marxian thought will discuss the following issues regarding men of color in prison: class inequality, exploitations of cheap labor (mode of production), and historical revolutionary action. In addition to Marxian thought, Enlightenment theory principles will guide the discussion.

Background: The Main Perception and Assumption of Why Men of Color Are in Prison

To make a case in point, we will analyze one main perception from an Enlightenment perspective. Here’s why:  In essence, men of color confront the perception by some judges and jurors that they are guilty before proven innocent. Therefore, men of color receive longer sentences, while other races receive greater leniency and discretion with rehabilitation programs. While some acknowledge the levels of injustice that men of color experience within the American justice system, others believe the assumption that: men of color are incarcerated more than others because they commit more crimes and are “natural” criminals.

This assumption will be challenged by discussing the history of targeting and violation of rights towards men of color within the American justice system, which contradicts principles of human rights and equality for all, as stated in the Declaration of Independence. This discussion also acknowledges that civil justice and racial equality is still at stake for men of color.

II. DESCRIPTION OF PROBLEM

Men of Color: The Incarceration Gap

The following three statistics support the incarceration problem:

  1. African Americans are imprisoned at six times the rate of whites (1).
  2. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime (2).
  3. In 2010, the incarceration rate for white men under local, state and federal jurisdiction was 678 inmates per 100,000 white U.S. residents; for black men, it was 4,347 (3).

The first statistic reflects both social and racial inequalities. This statistic also supports the notion of racial profiling amongst men of color. As a prime example, a report by the Department of Justice found that blacks...were approximately three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white motorists (4). Not only do statistics support this, but from an oral historical perspective, many men in my family have shared instances with me when they were followed in a store just because of the color of their skin. They also shared instances when their friends were abused by police officers just because the police officers could get away with it.

By telling us that one in three men of color today can expect to serve in prison during his lifetime, the second statistic also foreshadows racial inequalities regarding men of color. This statistic also shares the devastating effects that incarceration can have on one in three African American families.

The third statistic highlights the large disparity between white men and men of color in prison. As we can see, the incarceration rate for men of color is 645% more. Since this statistic was defined 4 years ago, it’s also a possibility that the incarceration rate between white men and men of color has increased.

Men of color: Racial Inequalities

The following three statistics support the racial inequality problem:

  1. Black men receive prison sentences 19.5 percent longer than those of white men who committed similar crimes, a 2013 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission found (5).
  2. Black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated in federal and state prisons, and local jails in 2010, the last year complete data are available, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. That is an increase from 1960, when black men were five times as likely as whites to be incarcerated (6).
  3. African American youth have higher rates of juvenile incarceration and are more likely to be sentenced to adult prison. According to the Sentencing Project, even though African American juvenile youth are about 16 percent of the youth population, 37 percent of their cases are moved to criminal court and 58 percent of African American youth are sent to adult prisons (7).

The first statistic reflects the political injustice and inequalities that men of color experience. If African-American men receive 19.5% longer sentences in comparison to white men, then this sheds light on the fact that men of color receive disimpassioned judges, jurors, and defendants during trial that are imposing longer sentences on them—an element of injustice and harsher sentencing.

The second statistic shows us that although there have been some racial strides since the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s, racial inequality still exists. From a historical context, the number of men of color that are likely to be incarcerated has increased in comparison to 1960.

Although the third statistic doesn’t examine the percentage of men of color that are more likely to be sentenced to adult prison, we know that the statistic applies to men of color since juvenile men of color are in prison. Therefore, we shouldn’t exclude this statistic. Nonetheless, we see a recurring theme of social and racial inequalities being ever-present amongst people of color. This is detrimental to the social progression and rehabilitation of youth of color who were either targeted or made mistakes in the past.

Modes of Production: Men of Color Used As A Labor Source to Fuel the PIC

The following three statistics support the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) problem:

  1. Well over 600,000, and probably close to a million, inmates are working full-time in jails and prisons throughout the United States (8).
  2. Some of the companies that use prison labor are IBM, Motorola, Compaq, Texas Instruments, Honeywell, Microsoft, and Boeing (9).
  3. The PIC contributes significantly to the racialized gaps we see in wealth, home ownership, business ownership, educational attainment and representation in our governing bodies, that is in many ways no different from the racialized landscape of the 17th, island 19th century United States.  And, like these racist institutions of the past, the depletion of capital that is brought about by the PIC is likely to have long-term and devastating consequences on African American families and communities (10).

Since the U.S. has a population of around 2 million people in prison (11), the first statistic shows us that close to 30-40% of inmates are apart of the PIC. Although there are not many statistics that itemize the number of men of color within the PIC (based on my research), statistics have proven that their are more men of color in prison than any other race. From this, we can logically reason that there are more men of color in the PIC than any other race.

The second statistic lists Fortune 500 companies that are profit from the PIC and prison labor. Rather than throwing the term PIC around loosely, listing these companies provides clear context and insight into the U.S. companies that are funding the PIC.

The third statistic supports the logic that the PIC fuels social, economic, and financial disparities amongst people of color. This statistic also views PIC as having analogous elements that relate to past eras of racism, which negatively impacts people of color and their families.

III. THEORY APPLICATION

Marx and Class Inequality: The Incarceration Gap

Although Marx doesn’t analyze class inequality on the basis of race, he does analyze it on the basis of economics and production. In Marxian theory, two types of classes exist in a capitalist society: the bourgeoisie (those who own means of production) and the proletariat (those who work for the bourgeois and do not own means of production) (12). Men of color in prison would be categorized as the proletariat class because they are both socially and economically underprivileged, and can eventually become labourers. And in Marxian theory, class inequalities must exist in order for capitalism to thrive. Therefore, they are under the dominance of the bourgeoisie. Today, the bourgeois could be considered members of the U.S. government, criminal justice system, and the owners of companies that fund the PIC.

Marx and Capitalism: Exploitation of Cheap Labor within the Prison Industrial Complex

From a Marxian Perspective, exploitation of labor occurs in capitalism. Labor exploitation occurs in the U.S. prison system because the mode of production is embedded in the PIC and today, we live in a capitalist society that is dominated by modes of production and markets. When Marx discusses the mode of production he discusses how the producer pays the worker low wages relative to the amount the he intends to sell the good for. Within the PIC, prisoners are paid anywhere between nothing at all to $1.15 an hour (13). This is a prime example of the producers of a society profiting from the labor and exploitation of the poor and disadvantaged. At the same time, alienation of labor amongst prisoners occurs (14). I can support this from and empirical evidence perspective because my dad is incarcerated. And when I visit him, sometimes I see the emotional distress that other prisoners have due to being treated like an animal. One, because of the brutal environment of the prison. But two, also because of how prisoners are treated during working hours—like nothing but a number. Here, the prisoners worth is on how much he can produce, not how he can be a rehabilitated citizen. From a policy, yet historical perspective, the mode of production amongst prisoners was embedded into our society in 1865. Examine the 13th amendment, which states:  

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation (15).

Here we can see slavery and involuntary servitude applies to prisoners—those who have been punished for a crime. So, this is one main reason why although the framework of the PIC may be unethical, it is legal. Why? Because the 13th Amendment of the U.S. in our Constitution basically permits slavery and involuntary servitude amongst its prisoners. Hence, the reason why Marx would probably agree that modes of production and the idea of a superstructure exist within the PIC and capitalism.

Marx and Historical Revolutionary Action

Now, Marx discusses that the proletariat can have revolutionary action by re-instilling values of family and education, especially amongst children. Similar to my proposed plan of action that is to come later in the discussion, I believe that if men of color devoted more time to family and educational prosperity, incarceration rates would decrease. Although dismantling the current structures of the “powers that be” may be uncontrollable, re-instilling family and educational values on an individual level amongst men and families of color is controllable, and would elevate their social and economic status.

Enlightenment Theory and The Assumption that Men of Color are Natural Criminals

An assumption exist that men of color are “natural” criminals, hence the reason why they are incarcerated more than any other race in America. I challenge this assumption by debunking it with conventional wisdom of racial profiling against men of color and the fact that men of color receive harsher sentencing in comparison to whites, even on the same crimes (as discussed in the “Description of the Problem” section). The groundwork of enlightenment thinking discusses virtues of liberty, freedom, and truth. I believe that the racial, social, economic, and political injustices towards men of color represents this truth as expressed by Enlightenment thinker Rousseau: “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains” (16). I apply this quote to men of color because it is evident that they face oppression and barriers to entry in society hence the incarceration gap, racial profiling, harsher sentencing, disemployment, voter suppression, and educational injustices—just to present an iota of issues that men of color face.

IV. RESEARCH AND SOLUTIONS

From my empirical observation, research, and analysis, I have proposed a 10-point solution. The purpose of my solutions are to reduce the number of men of color in prison in the U.S. on a collective level. The key question it answers is: What tangible ways can we reduce the number of men of color in prison? The main assumption of the solution is that if followed, the outcome of having more men of color in jail in comparison to any other race will not exist. If we fail to take this line of reasoning seriously, then the number of men of color in prison will continue to skyrocket and too many children of color will have to face the emotional devastation of having a parent in prison. The following solutions will address the root of the problem—white supremacy and oppression. White supremacy is complex and sophisticated. It also is a collective, rather than an individual effort. Therefore, the following solution must be exerted by men of color and their families on a collective level. Everyone of the following points below contributes either explicitly or implicitly to men of color going to prison in alarming rates.

Social & Entertainment

  • Boycott listening to rap and hip hop music.
    • Many of the lyrics and influences lead to the emotional and psychological destruction of people of color.
  • Boycott becoming rappers and musicians.
    • The industry is controlled and funded by executives that are not in the best interest of the elevation of people of color.
  • Boycott attending clubs.
    • Many men of color run into violence and intoxication at clubs.
  • Boycott watching movies.
    • Many of them perpetuate white superiority and people of color in inferior positions.
  • Boycott playing sports professionally.
    • Men of color are the majority population in football and basketball and are not rewarded for their intellectual capabilities, but rather for their physical agility. It is a new form of slavery, where the athlete is traded from one team to the next just to run a ball and entertain the audience.
  • Boycott wearing fashion labels.
    • There is no benefit to being a walking billboard for designer brands that care nothing about the elevation of people of color. But rather, they only are motivated to receive monetary gain from people of color.

Economics

  • Increase entrepreneurship rather than searching for jobs.
    • Men of color experience unemployment and job discrimination. Even if they do succeed on their jobs, they are often overshadowed by their white-counterparts because they don’t receive as many job promotions and pay raises.
  • Collectively boycott businesses when individual cases of police brutality and discrimination occur.
    • For example, instead of rioting in Missouri in response to the assassination of Michael Brown, all people of color should boycott restaurants and cosmetic, businesses nationwide to cripple and demobilize the national economy.

Financial

  • Avoid debt (except for education) and borrowing from banks.
    • The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender. (Proverbs 22:7, KJV)

Political

  • Learn the voting process, laws, and guidelines of their state.
  • Serve as voter election judges and voting aids (can began as early as 13 years old)
    • Become active citizens in the community.
  • Take an active role in city and state governments.

Spiritual

  • Follow and live by the 10 commandments in the Bible (Exodus 20:3-17)
  • Honor the Sabbath day on Friday evening to Saturday evening
    • A lot of crime and misfortune occurs on Friday and Saturday in the black community. Therefore, keeping the Sabbath day holy would eliminate crime and arrests.

Family

  • Instill values of the role of the mom and the father.
  • Read books to children every night, both mom and dad together or alternating during the week.

Education

  • Homeschool children as early as 5 years of age and remove children from public, private, and charter schools.
    • People of color experience racism in schools and are not emotionally or intellectually nurtured. Even if they thrive academically, they often lose a sense of oneself in the process.  
    • Black history is often limited to 1 month rather than integrated into curriculums.
  • Dads and moms need to achieve higher education.

Legal

  • Gain constitutional understanding and insight by reading and memorizing our founding documents, began as early as 5 years of age.
  • Earn J.D. degrees and become judges.
    • It’s rare that we see men of color as judges. At the same time, more men of color need to be in legal positions to mitigate racial discrimination within the justice system.

Health

  • Boycott the use and the sell of drugs.
  • Boycott purchasing unnecessary cosmetics.
  • Adopt a vegetarian lifestyle and boycott juices and soda.
    • This will decrease obesity rates and diabetes within the black community
    • Juices and soda are filled with artificial chemicals like high fructose corn syrup and MSG that are detrimental to health.
    • And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat (Genesis 1:29).
  • Live an abstinent lifestyle until marriage and avoid promiscuity.
  • Boycott rampant abortions because it kills our babies and causes population control amongst people of color (Exodus 20:13).
    • Rampant abortions by people of color also fund the lifestyles of doctors and organizations that aren’t in the best interest of people of color

V. CONCLUSION

Summary of Main Points

In summary, I have presented statistics and personal reflection to support that the incarceration gap shows that men of color are imprisoned more than any other race in America, men of color are used as a labor source to help fuel the prison industrial complex, and men of color are economically, socially, and politically disadvantaged. At the same time, we see that Marxian theory is applicable to elements of class inequalities, the PIC, and revolutionary action, regarding men of color. Also, traces of Enlightenment thinking can be used to analyze aspects of freedom and liberty amongst and men of color. The 10-dimensional solution was presented in an effort to provide an antidote to decreasing the number of men of color in prison. This effort is a collective effort that would restore the minds, bodies, and spirit of men of color and their families. While some may say this plan is extreme, I wholeheartedly agree that extreme measures are required for extreme circumstances.


Connection to Broader Questions In Society

The significance of my work frames the following questions in reflection:

  1. Will the nomination of a man of color as the 44th President of the United States inspire other men of color to ban interests that could possibly lead them to prison?
  2. Will the number of men of color in prison in the U.S. increase or decrease in the next 10 years?
  3. Will the rapid expansion of privately-owned prisons negatively impact men of color if future political candidates decide to fund and promote the Prison Industrial Complex?
  4. Are incarceration gaps and mass incarceration of men of color an attempt to decrease the population of men of color in the U.S.?
  5. In 10 years, will the children of parents in prison ban together to expose injustices within the U.S. prison system or will they fall in the same pitfalls as their parents?

 

Appendix:

  1. Featured Image: Prisoners at State Prison in San Quentin, California, Source: NY Times
  2. Exhibit A: Incarceration Comparison by Race, Source: Prison Policy Initiative
  3. Exhibit B: Men of Color Receive Sentence 19.5% Longer Than White Men Who Committed Similar Crimes, Sources: Huffington Post and The U.S. Sentencing Commission
  4. Exhibit C: Whites Use More Drugs Than People of Color but are Arrested Less, Source: Huffington Post

 

Sources: 

  1. MPR News. “African Americans and the Incarceration Gap.”
  2. NAACP. “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.”
  3. Pew Research Center. “Incarceration Gap Widens Between Whites and Blacks.
  4. Kerby, Sophia. “1 in 3 Black Men Go To Prison? The 10 Most Disturbing Facts About Racial Inequality in the U.S. Criminal Justice System.”
  5. Huffington Post. “15 Charts That Prove We're Far From Post-Racial.”
  6. Pew Research Center. “Incarceration Gap Widens Between Whites and Blacks.”
  7.  Kerby, Sophia. “1 in 3 Black Men Go To Prison? The 10 Most Disturbing Facts About Racial Inequality in the U.S. Criminal Justice System.”
  8. Khalek, Raina. “21st-Century Slaves: How Corporations Exploit Prison Labor.”
  9. Davis, Angela. “Masked Racism: Reflection on the Prison Industrial Complex.”
  10. Smith, Earl and Angela J. Hattery. 2010. "African American Men and the Prison Industrial Complex." Western Journal of Black Studies 34(4):387-398.
  11. Smith, Earl and Angela J. Hattery. 2008. "Incarceration: A Tool for Racial Segregation and Labor Exploitation. "Race, Gender & Class 15(1):79-97.
  12. Zeitlin, Irving. “Ideology and the Development of Sociological Thought.” (pg. 169-170)
  13. Sinha, Anita. “Orange is the New Black and the Practice of Prison Labor.”
  14. Zeitlin, Irving. “Ideology and the Development of Sociological Thought.”
  15. National Archives. “The Constitution of the United States: Amendments 11-27.”
  16. Zeitlin, Irving. “Ideology and the Development of Sociological Thought.” (pg. 24)

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